Caveat Emptor

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 September 2002



Abeles, T.P. (2002), "Caveat Emptor", On the Horizon, Vol. 10 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2002, MCB UP Limited

Caveat Emptor

Caveat Emptor

The USA is seeing numbers of college graduates returning to the two year community colleges and vocational schools to obtain "marketable" skills such as nursing and information technology. Some universities are offering dual credits, particularly in the information technology sector. Students can obtain traditional college credits for a degree and certification for specific software skills. What have we purchased when we have obtained a college degree?

Whether a student attends a traditional public, tax-supported, university or a private institution, one rarely pays the total cost for the education. Grants, institutional endowments and other revenue streams offset costs of tuition. In the private for-profit post-secondary institutions, these offsets are scarce or non-existent. Yet all offer the same degree – a BA or BS – and all are certified by the same standards organizations. What have we purchased when we choose one institution over the other?

Today, in both "click" and "brick" space, the units or courses and credits are becoming interchangeable. Transferability of credits, carefully chosen, becomes almost automatic. Institutions jointly share instructors, courses and even purchase courses from third parties and offer them under their own imprimaturs. The process is much like the old two year/four year relationships on steroids. When one peeks under the degree, what will we find and what have we purchased with a college degree?

What do we obtain from a campus-based degree versus a virtual space degree from the same institution? What do we obtain from a medallion institution that is worth the price differential between it and a highly ranked public university or a small institution? Have these answers changed over time? Should they have and/or will they?

Universitas 21 will offer a degree that has the seals from all its member institutions. Additionally, third party verification of its quality and performance seems not to be of concern, since it believes that the member oversight may prove of greater validity and benefit to itself, its students and graduates. In a world where countries can be fiscally bankrupted at the click of a mouse and students in one institution matriculate on the other side of the world with a keystroke, what purpose is there in third party certification organizations, whether private or governmental? What, indeed, is the value of either the education or the sheepskin, real or virtual?

Today, many courses, particularly in virtual space, are constructed by teams of designers and content experts. They are taught by another party and, often, evaluations carried out by still others. In some institutions it is possible for a scholar to be hidden in a research facility with occasional forays onto a podium; others face the opposite, being creatures of the classroom and finding research opportunities in the interstices. Have there ever been scholars in the great tradition of The Academy? What is the role of these scholars in today's and tomorrow's institutions?

The University of Phoenix is the largest post-secondary institution in the USA. A private for-profit university, its undergraduate students are older than the typical college undergraduate and are successfully employed with incomes that are well above national averages, and even that of many college graduates. Since many have their tuition paid by their employer, enough eyes are present to assure that the knowledge and degrees obtained are meaningful and of value to all parties. The University is accredited to offer the same bachelors and masters degrees that traditional institutions from small liberal arts institutions to first-tier research universities. What are the issues that leave people uncomfortable about the University and many of the other alternatives that are rapidly arising, globally?

What is being "sold" in the academic marketplace? When we used to see high school diplomas as certifying a person as having sufficient skills to be a productive citizen, post-secondary education reached for other goals. Today, much of what was taught at the university a few years ago is now present at the high school level, including science and technology. Additionally, many of the advances in information technology allow K-12 students ready access to global knowledge that was only dreamed about by universities less than a decade ago. Students, in some K-12 schools, travel globally in click and brick space and are exposed to technical and cultural issues that are still dreams of some colleges and their student bodies in both the developed and developing worlds. What is the purpose of a university? What should we, who support or attend these institutions expect from a university experience? What are we buying?

The management "guru", Peter Drucker, among others, has postulated the demise of many of our post secondary institutions, particularly in the USA. Those that disappear will not necessarily be the small, liberal arts, institutions. And, disappearance might not mean that the doors to the ivy-covered campuses will be closed and surrounded by brambles à la the castle of Sleeping Beauty. In fact, many may already be closed, only they have not noticed, being held in suspension by the sheer force of fiscal resources and faith similar to that which brought Peter Pan's Tinker Bell back from the brink of death. When we step through the portal of the ivory towers of our chosen intellectual Camelot is it real or an illusion? Does it matter?

Tom P. AbelesEditor

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